Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Batman: I Am Gotham


Tom King, David Finch & others Batman: I Am Gotham (2017)
I have to confess I've never really given much of a shit about Batman. I loved The Dark Knight Returns obviously, not only because both art and writing were great, but because a character who routinely smashes kneecaps as means to a judicial end only really works as an antihero; but Tom King's Vision was the possibly the greatest comic book I've ever read, and celebrated children's entertainer Barnaby Salton reckoned I should give this a go, and I was feeling fat, unwell, and incapacitated due to a combination of interrupted sleep, chicken in walnut sauce, and one of those shakes you can use to grout bathroom tiles. I needed the reading equivalent of comfort food, the sort of thing my mummy would have brought back from the shops for me if I was poorly - hence Batman, even though it's probably the very last thing my mother would have brought back from the shops for me. I would have more likely ended up with Thomas Hardy or one of the Brontës.

I Am Gotham is beautifully written with concise prose applied sparingly - no thought bubbles or inset panels of exposition, their modern equivalent - and the art is beautiful, so it's distinctly filmic in terms of pacing, atmosphere, and how little it gives away or pauses to explain itself. Aside from anything else, this additionally tends to suggest that the comic book has become merchandising to the CGI-heavy superheroic television serial, of which there are now a great many, although I very much doubt this being intentional or conscious. Here Batman saves lives, gets caught up in fights, is made subject to governmental skulduggery, endures the occasional crisis of conscience and so on; and whilst it's beautifully done and atmospherically powerful, it didn't feel that satisfying. In fact it felt a bit like one of those television shows, just with a bit more artistic integrity, and I've yet to see one of those television shows I liked. I saw twenty minutes of The Flash the other night. It was fucking shit.

Anyway, while I felt as though I spotted what I presume to be one of King's enduring themes - namely great power as something terrible in the hands of persons who don't know what to do with it, as we saw in Little Worse Than a Man, ultimately this one didn't really quite seem to be about anything, which I found a little unsatisfying. Then of course I now realise that I Am Gotham is just the first of a three part story, so it's really just getting warmed up. Interviewed online, Tom King was asked of all of Batman's qualities and attributes, what's the one that really speaks to you?

To me, it's his mortality. It's the idea that he could die—that he's human. There's something about Superman and Wonder Woman that says to me that they go on forever. If you came to Earth one hundred years from now, Superman and Wonder Woman would still be here. But Batman's like one of us, right? He can die. He has that risk factor to him, and every time he goes out at night, he faces that and still triumphs over it. That just makes him the most human character in the DCU to me, the idea that he's not a god. He lives among the gods and tries to do his best.

So okay, fair enough. I can see this one may well be going somewhere and I guess I'll be picking up the rest. It may not get off to quite such an arresting start as The Vision, but it still pisses over most other versions of Batman I've seen.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Time Tunnel


Murray Leinster Time Tunnel (1964)
Leinster's Time Tunnel is surprisingly nothing to do with the better-known television series - which it predates by a couple of years - but to further confuse matters, Leinster later wrote a couple of tie-in books based on the television series to which this earlier novel is unrelated; so I'm inclined to wonder if Irwin Allen didn't at least consciously pinch the title, resulting in some kind of deal being struck. Anyway, for what it may be worth, Leinster's Time Tunnel of 1964 doesn't have anything much in common with later versions aside from the premise, and time travel was in any case a fairly common theme in science-fiction literature by this point.

Leinster's story here forges a link between present day and Napoleonic France through some doubtful-sounding process wherein molten metal is left undisturbed once it has cooled, in this case a cannon in an old foundry. Time travel is suspected when antiques and antique materials of suspiciously fine quality begin to turn up in modern France, and the hunt is on for the elusive De Bassompierre.

It was not reasonable for so remarkable an achievement as a time-tunnel to be used only to deliver exotic perfumery to Paris in which very few people bathed. It was not reasonable for the return traffic to be ornamental snuff boxes, out of date newspapers and flintlock pistols to be used as paperweights. The fate of Europe hung in the balance at one end of the time-tunnel, where Napoleon reigned. At the other end the survival of the human race was in question. The tunnel could have been used to adjust both situations, but it was actually used to keep a shop going.

Even by the standard of time travel fiction, this one is a fucking mess. It feels as though it might have benefited in being allowed to sprawl beyond its relatively slender page count, maybe granting Leinster more space in which to introduce his characters. As it stands, I spent most of the time trying to work out what was going on and whether this was the same guy from the previous chapter.

On the other hand, Time Tunnel remains immensely enjoyable in spite of itself. The historical Parisian setting is well-realised and gives this novel a quite unique feel in respect to both its vintage and its genre; and there are frequent incongruously philosophical digressions, at least incongruous for a novel with a fifty cent cover price. As I may have mentioned before, Leinster was the science-fiction incarnation of William F. Jenkins, a man who churned out one novel after another, hopping from mystery to romance to western before apparently settling into writing just stuff involving robots and spacecraft during the fifties. Once again, Time Tunnel reveals him to have been a writer who learned a lot from excursions into other genres, and reads like something which might have quite easily been published by Penguin, being more of a narrative than an adventure. The confusion is aggravating, but not so much so as to detract from the pleasure of the text, and of Leinster's peculiar and fascinating digressions on subjects such as free will, cause and effect, the anthropic principle, and the nuclear arms race. Also, considering how long ago this was written, and how much of this time paradox stuff I've read, it's probably worth noting that the ending still came as a complete surprise to me.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century


Chris Bentley (editor), Frank Bellamy, Ron Embleton & others
Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century (2009)

We were in one of those massive clearance sales, table after table of books in a warehouse the size of an aircraft hanger. Everything was a dollar, and anything left unsold would be pulped, and so I picked this up because it seemed a shame to let it get smushed.

I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works back before my voice broke, and I was massively into it because I loved those weird futuristic vehicles; so when I say I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works, I actually mean I was into the Dinky Toys and maybe the occasional annual because they contained photographs of those weird futuristic vehicles. I liked the television shows too up to a point, but often felt that the characters got in the way of the story. It's therefore possibly ironic that the traditional pubescent surge of testosterone more or less cured me of these Jeremy Clarkson-esque preferences, and it's why I'm inclined to suspicion when I encounter adults waxing lyrically about the worlds of Gerry Anderson. The models were beautiful, but I'm not convinced there's anything much to get excited over beyond the models, certainly nothing which works without the benefit of arguably unhealthy levels of nostalgia.

TV21 had been cancelled by the time I was old enough to read it, so this is really the first I've seen of this body of work - strips based on Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and others. The art is lavish and unusually beautiful as you might anticipate given the credentials of those involved, and is exactly what is required to communicate the magic of those weird futuristic vehicles. However, even the most gorgeous art is undermined by what I guess must have been editorial insistence on readers being able to recognise the individual faces of their favourite string puppets, not to mention stilted narratives which may as well be variations on Timmy having fallen down the well. The stories are about the same standard as what you saw on the telly, being mostly excuses to get Troy Tempest, Mike Mercury, or Scott Tracy back into the cockpit. The more satisfying efforts are those which stretch the envelope a little - the one in which Captain Scarlet joins a football team, for example; or where artists like Mike Noble or Brian Lewis capture some required resemblance to whoever we saw on the box without invoking Charlie McCarthy or Lord Charles; and then there's Planet of Bones in which the crew of the Zero X - a weird futuristic space vehicle featured in one of the Thunderbirds film - experience peril on a world where all the dinosaur skeletons have come to life due to evolution having taken a bit of a funny turn. Chris Bentley's introduction hails it as being ludicrously brilliant, but erm...

Yes, I know it was for kids, but then so was Dan Dare and I can still read those without wincing because Eagle at least aspired to elevate its young audience without talking down to them. For all its aesthetic appeal, TV21 mostly just wanted you to tune in next week, aspiring mainly to remind you of something you saw on the television - which isn't necessarily a terrible thing, but makes it tough work qualifying this stuff as genuinely classic, unless it's as kitsch.

I really wanted to like Adventures in the 21st Century, and whilst it's harmless, I just can't quite bring myself to love it as some might. The funny thing is that I recall plenty of those TV21 Dalek strips from their reprints, and unless I'm remembering wrongly, there was a plenty imagination at work in that material, as the esteemed Sarah Hadley noted on facebook:

What I think is amazing is that it essentially makes the Daleks protagonists. They're "villainous," yes, and there are occasional characters out to stop them - but this isn't Terry Nation's Dalek series (which would've had Space Security agents Sara Kingdom and Marc Seven in the leads). Almost every single strip, you're implicitly being called to side with the Daleks and hope they win.

Of course The Daleks featured monodimensional supporting characters from Doctor Who placed centre stage by the TV21 strip and obliged to do something a bit more interesting than we'd seen on the box. Accordingly, the better material in this collection is that which either screws with the formula by having Captain Scarlet pull on the old football boots, or which expands some subsidiary element of a show into a thing in its own right, as with the Lady Penelope strip - nothing earth shattering but still preferable to the Stingray crew wobbling around a spooky haunted castle just like on Scooby Doo.

As a point of lesser interest, considering how lyrically Stephen Baxter waxes about Fireball XL5 in the opening chapters of Coalescent, the resemblance of the somewhat blobby Astrans from The Astran Assassination to Baxter's Silver Ghosts - as described in his Xeelee novels - is difficult to miss.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6


Michael Moorcock (editor)
The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6 (1970)

In his introduction, Moorcock states that he prefers to simply call this fiction, while the back cover qualifies the SF as referring to either science or speculative fiction. I've never liked speculative fiction because as a term it makes me think of Margaret Attwood and Jeanette Winterson sneering about how space travel is such a boy thing, but I like science fiction as something incorporating all the weird shit which doesn't quite fit anywhere else - which is what we have here.

New Worlds was never scared of printing weird shit, and I'd say some of the best stuff from the magazine was also the weirdest, at least if we're to take a sciencey man smoking his pipe as he heads for Mars in a rocket with his robot best friend to be baseline normal. Surprisingly, whilst there's some reasonably strange stuff here, the collection feels sober by the standards of the well from which it is drawn, and is subsequently not so great as it might have been - as though someone might even be reigning it in a little, although I suspect this impression to be only a pattern emergent from possibly unfair comparisons with the magazine.

In Reason's Ear by Hilary Bailey - who sadly passed just months ago - stood out for me, as did Moorcock's The Delhi Division, a story which demonstrates how his own weirdly non-linear narratives were always so much more readable than those of the many who seem so obviously inspired by him, I guess some of whom also feature in this collection. Langdon Jones' The Eye of the Lens has an immensely promising start with page after page of dry, dreamlike descriptions of imagined machines, evolving into something even stranger, then goes on for a bit and eventually overstays its welcome, which is a shame. There's also J.G. Ballard's The Killing Ground which reinforces my hypothesis that Ballard simply isn't for me; and then there are the rest, and they're mostly pretty darn great - certainly nothing you would want to skip - but I somehow felt my brains should have been dripping from my ears by the end of this lot, which wasn't the case; so I guess that's a recommendation, but just not one entailing any significant quota of fists pumping the air.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin


Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill Nemo: The Roses of Berlin (2014)
This time it's the daughter of Verne's character invading a Nazi Germany combining elements of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator with Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The villainess is herself from H. Rider Haggard's She with cameos by Dr. Mabuse from the Norbert Jacques novel and nods to Verne's The Master of the World, Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and doubtless a ton of other stuff I didn't notice. Once you're done with the trainspotting aspect, The Roses of Berlin is generally fun, and the art is obviously wonderful, but somehow it feels a bit phoned-in compared to previous Extraordinary Gentlemen books, and when Nemo observes:

This strange place is putting me on edge. I'm nearing fifty. Perhaps I'm too old for all this...

Well, I mean it is Alan Moore, the guy who can barely scratch his arse without it allegorising five different things, and the same Alan Moore who recently announced he was packing in the comics; and the later duel between the youthful Nemo and the ancient Ayesha seems potentially symbolic when the timeless immortal accuses the newcomer of stealing from her. As to what it might actually be saying, if anything, I have no idea. I suppose it could be something along the lines of old masters not getting the recognition they deserve, that being what Moore seemed to be suggesting when he recast Harry Potter as the Antichrist elsewhere in the saga.

True enough, I was born in the sixties and I read a lot, but I barely get some of the references made here, which isn't something I'm particularly proud of; so I guess Nemo might be an exercise in pinning certain fading cultural artefacts to the present simply because they should be remembered, and remembering them enriches contemporary culture for the better. So that's good.

Monday, 6 March 2017

In the Days of the Comet


H.G. Wells In the Days of the Comet (1906)
I've tended to avoid what I regard as later Wells, generally meaning anything written since The First Men in the Moon. Whilst the quality of his prose may well have remained high, I have the impression he simply ran out of decent ideas, or was at least floundering to some extent; but admittedly this is only a very vague impression based on The Food of the Gods being largely crap and finding myself massively underwhelmed by most of the later short stories that I read, or at least forced myself to finish for the sake of disliking them with authority. I only picked this up because it's so unusual to come across a copy of a novel other than one of the big five, and against all expectations it's not the pile of crap I expected it to be.

That said, it falls off a little in the second half, never quite attaining the escape velocity necessary to achieve the potential promised by the first hundred or so pages, but by that point I didn't even mind, my initial expectations having been set so low. The story is a fairly simple one entailing a passing comet saturating the Earth's atmosphere with a gas which stops everyone acting like wankers. John Brunner pretty much recycled the idea in The Stone That Never Came Down without either the comet or anything you might reasonably describe as an improvement. For Wells' take we experience everything that was wrong with English society at the turn of the century through the eyes of a working-class lad in a coal mining community. His girlfriend has just run off with the son of the landowning lord of the manor, and he's not fucking happy.

In that time of muddle and obscurity people were overtaken by needs and toil and hot passions before they had the chance of even a year or so of clear thinking; they settled down to an intense and strenuous application of some partial but immediate duty, and the growth of thought ceased in them. They set and hardened into narrow ways.

Wells talks about class, privilege, capitalism, industrialisation of labour, and the use of media by which a population is taught to embrace its own servitude and demonise anything which threatens the status quo. But for period details, at times it reads as though it could have been written just months ago, invoking unfortunate parallels which bring serious weight to Wells' argument. It's been a long time since I read any Thomas Hardy, but the first half of the book strongly suggests what little I recall of his passion for social reform.

The comet passes, assuaging the fears of any person suspecting they may have been conned into reading something other than science-fiction, and a green gas envelops the globe, and everyone wakes up with a new awareness of the error of their ways. Unfortunately, as often tends to be the case with utopian novels, it's not very interesting after that - mostly characters having recriminations about how they could ever have been so foolish as to vote for the Annoying Orange, arguments which were better put in the first half of the book for having been expressed in a spirit of anger rather than one of amiable bewilderment. So it ends on a positive note - but for the suggestion that it will take the passing of a narcotic comet to stop us voting Adolf Hitler back into power, over and over, never learning a single fucking thing - but a positive note that just kind of trails off into nothing. This might be a problem but for the sheer power of the first half of the book - not Wells' greatest novel, but his greatest first half of a novel, I'd say.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Weapons Grade Snake Oil


Blair Bidmead Weapons Grade Snake Oil (2016)
Here's another one for which I painted the cover, and I should probably also mention that I'm friends with Blair and he sought my opinion on an earlier draft of this novel, and also - no word of a lie - I used to deliver his mail back when I was a postman, although we didn't know each other at the time. Therefore it might be argued that my impartiality is somewhat compromised here. On the other hand it's not like anyone is paying me to write this, so screw you.

Anyway, you may notice at this juncture how I've turned a little red in the face, and I'm looking at my shoes whilst rocking from side to side as though suddenly having found myself in an embarrassing predicament. This is because I feel somehow obliged - possibly in the subconscious hope of countering any potential accusations of bias on my part - that I had my doubts when I heard Blair was writing a Faction Paradox novel; and mainly because I'd disliked his Señor 105 novella By the Time I Get to Venus to the point of it making me feel quite uncomfortable because it's always awkward when someone towards whom you feel well disposed produces something against which all your senses rebel. I'd rather not get into why I disliked it, but I vaguely recall having had a similar reaction to some short story or other, something in one of the Obverse collections; and an acquaintance who should probably remain anonymous - which shouldn't be too difficult given that I don't actually know his offline name - expressed a concern that Blair's book might attempt to make the Faction cool, like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere with more skulls; and yes - that would be a bad thing.

On the other hand, Blair Bidmead's Now or Thereabouts, was the high point of the short story collection A Romance in Twelve Parts; although when he asked me to take a look at an early draft of what seemed to be called The 2nd Second, I nevertheless made that fearful gumph swallowing noise made by characters in Viz comic prior to the inevitable encounter with dad's slipper. Once I actually got to reading the thing my sighs of relief were of such force as to sweep several cats out into the yard. Whatever it was that had given me cause for doubt, he'd stopped doing it, and there was a more confident tone to the prose, and the ideas were good and the jokes were funny. Thank Christ for that, I thought.

Weapons Grade Snake Oil is better still, or at least I got more from it, which might also be something to do with my reading it as a proper book rather than as a first draft on a screen - I don't like reading from screens of any description. It's basically a heist novel, the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels of the Faction Paradox canon, I suppose, which I'll qualify by adding that I liked Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, just in case that detail seemed ambiguous. That said, given how
frequently Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels swerves into self-parody, I would imagine that writing this one must have been something of a balancing act, despite which, it skips along at a fair old pace without missing a step. Half of the novel revisits the Eleven Day Empire, the city built inside eleven days taken from the British calendar back in 1752, which is nice seeing as we haven't seen much of the city since Lolita devoured it whole in Lawrence Miles' The Shadow Play. Bidmead delves significantly into the Faction toybox with serious relish, not so much in trying to serve up a crowd pleaser as just for fun; and not saying previous novels in this series have been necessarily lacking in chuckles, but there's something quite joyous about Blair's approach, massive ideas flung hither and thither with reckless abandon, ideas which might seem patently fucking ridiculous under other circumstances cheerfully crayoned into the story and forced to behave themselves, sort of - the princess of Pluto who lives inside an elephant persuaded to take part in just one last perfect crime...

It's the kind of thing which could have gone horribly wrong, particularly given all the obscure references which are there if you want them, which personally I didn't given that you'd have to pay me to watch an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures; but the lad done good, as they used to say at the football matches. It's the sort of writing Steven Moffat never quite manages, albeit in a different medium, because Blair makes the effort to actually do something with those massive ideas rather than just letting them sit there looking pleased with themselves. Oddly, in terms of tone, Weapons Grade Snake Oil is arguably the most Miles-ian contribution to the Faction Paradox series since the man himself was writing, but if that doesn't work as a recommendation, try Iain M. Banks with better jokes and less fannying around. Let's hope he has a few more like this up his sleeve.